QR3.9.2 Is Science About Physical Things?

Physics today agrees that quantum waves aren’t observable:

The full quantum wave function of an electron itself is not directly observable…(Lederman & Hill, 2004) p240

Nature’s firewall separates us from quantum reality, as any attempt to observe a quantum wave collapses it to a physical event. That quantum theory is based on what can’t be directly observed raises the question “Is it really science?

The doctrine that only “…what impinges on us directly is real.” (Mermin, 2009) p9 has been taken to imply that what we can’t observe isn’t real, so one can argue that:

1. Science should only describe physical reality, not imaginary things like fairies.

2. Physical reality is only what we can physically observe.

3. Therefore, science shouldn’t describe what we can’t physically observe!

If describing what isn’t physical isn’t science then quantum theory isn’t science, yet it is the most successful theory in the history of physics! The flaw in the argument is that statement 1 is false because science is based on predicting physical reality, not what it describes.

The idea that science can only describe physical things is called logical positivism, a nineteenth century fallacy of science that predates quantum theory. Statement 1 above, that science must describe physical reality, is physical realism masquerading as an axiom of science.

Science is actually based on Locke and Hume’s empiricism, that scientific theories must be tested by physical reality. Quantum theory is then a science because it predicts physical events, regardless of what it describes. There has never been a requirement that scientific theories must describe physical things e.g., gravity isn’t a physical thing but Einstein’s theory of gravity is science because it predicts physical effects. To reject any reference to the non-physical would deny the mathematics of complex numbers that physicists use every day.

Logical positivism has failed every discipline that tried it. Behaviorism tried to reduce psychology to physical acts until Chomsky showed it failed for language, and applying positivism to computing would ignore the human and social levels behind socio-technical systems like Twitter. In some ways, physics is the last bastion of the idea that only the physical is real, but yet again, it is failing.

Saying the physical is all there is ignores the observer but reality in a participative universe is an observer-observed interaction, so to ignore the observer is to ignore half of reality. The observer is fundamental because every science needs it, even physics as an observer triggers quantum collapse and relativity needs an observer frame of reference. Attempts to “ban” the observer from science don’t work because the observer is inherent to our reality.

In quantum realism, the quantum world observing itself makes a virtual physical world, so the observer is the answer not the problem. Physical reality arises when an observer interrogates quantum reality as a game click gives a view so the long-sought boundary between the classical and quantum worlds is the “click” of observation. We see a phenomenon not the noumenon or “thing in itself” (Kant, 2002, p392) so calling physical phenomena real and quantum noumena unreal was the wrong turn that led physics into the current desert of physical realism. All science is based on the observer.